Thursday, September 7, 2023

Teaching the Preamble

This piece has been sitting on my desktop for months. It is from Education Nex, and it was written by Michael Poor, the interim managing editor of that publication. 

Poor has put together a piece that includes several points on which we disagree, but there are a couple of paragraphs that I would by God hang on the wall of my classroom if I still had one. 

Poor is talking about the preamble of the Constitution-- here's the text, in case it has slipped your mind:

We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Pretty good stuff, and as Poor points out, the result of some rewriting and fiddling, particularly pushing aside a dry, state-centered version. It was the Convention's Committee of Style that really punched it up into this expression of American aspiration. Poor thinks this should be centered in history and civics instruction; he even envisions it as a path away from "culture wars."

I'm not sure I much like the expression "culture wars," which presumes that two sides are fighting hard to impose their culture on US classrooms. But Porr is correct in noting that "American children are caught in the middle" of it all, and are asked to "absorb the legislative fallout of their elders' per causes."

I also don't care for Poor's false equivalence conveyed in this sentence: "They may be well protected from uncomfortable topics in their school curricula but not from the bumbling attempts of adults to help them recover from pandemic learning losses." He then goes on to suggest that the prevalence of hyper-partisanship as a citizen model may be related to the NAEP history and civics score drops, and I don't to go way down that rabbit hole because, mostly, who cares what NAEP civics and history scores are. And he does nod briefly at the fact that the Constitution was itself a highly controversial document. I'll say it again: Anyone who talks about what the Founders or the Framers wanted is cutting corners, because they disagreed fiercely about pretty much everything, with the possible exception of an aspiration to get things set up the proper way. 

But, Poor suggests, what if we went stopped bothering with entrenched cultural positions and went back to the preamble and the classroom, and then he unleashes two paragraphs that are as good as anything anyone has to say about teaching history:

Imagine a U.S. history class where the preamble is prominently displayed for all to see—not as a mark of patriotism but as a didactic referent for students to read and internalize the aspirational promises of the United States as identified by the founding generation. Imagine a teacher asking her students, “What does ‘a more perfect union’ look like? What did it look like in 1787? What wasn’t perfect about the United States then? What about today?”

Imagine a conversation in which students are made to feel neither proud nor guilty about the past but instead have an honest confrontation with how their country has been a force for good and how it has perpetuated wretched evils. And imagine students identifying the same characteristics in modern America and being asked, “What can you do to form a more perfect union today?”

And also this:

We do a disservice to American students when we catastrophize or mythologize our past instead of guiding them through the complicated, contradictory, and incomplete story of the world’s oldest democracy.

Despite the "world's oldest democracy" part, these strike me as far better aims that "instilling a love of God and country" or "helping students understand how the US is much more awesomer than the whole rest of the world."


No comments:

Post a Comment